Learning to read Chinese seems like an impossible task at first. I remember first seeing Chinese characters and thinking “Am I really going to learn to make sense of this?!” It takes hard work but I’m living proof that yes…yes, you can! I’ve learned that the whole process can be much easier with the right tools, which is why I’d like to share my favorite tools for learning to read Chinese.
From flashcards, dictionaries, readers, and more, there are a ton of little-known app and tools on the web that will make learning how to read Chinese fun, easy, and exciting! Some of the programs are free, while other programs will set you back anywhere from $10-500.
Honestly, it’s not about how much money you spend, it’s about how much you dedicate to the learning process. For some people (like me) that requires investing financially to create a sense of “buy in”.
Whatever you choose, don’t be afraid to dive in with both feet. Learning Chinese is a fun challenge…don’t be discouraged to the point that you never get started! Take that first step to learn how to read Chinese today.
This article is a smaller part of a more comprehensive list of Chinese language learning tools that I’ve used over the past decade to learn Chinese.
*Note* Some of the links in this article are affiliate links, which means that at no extra cost to you, I may be compensated if you choose to use one of the services recommended here. I don’t recommend anything I haven’t used, though, and by doing this I’m able to keep this content free. Thanks for your support!
21 Best Tools to Learn to Read Chinese
After more than a decade of Chinese language learning, I’ve organized my list of the best tools to help you learn to read Chinese below. You can click on the specific category of resource below to jump immediately to that section.
Books & Videos | Fun Ways to Read Chinese
Let’s face it: when we call learning to read Chinese “studying”, it becomes work. If we call it “reading a book” or “watching a video”, well…sometimes it actually becomes fun. That’s what these resources are for. Here is what we recommend.
1. Mandarin Companion (Recommended)
This growing set of books for beginners and intermediate Chinese learners is a great tool for those of you who want to increase your Chinese reading speed and fluency while also having fun. It makes sense if you think about it: what better way to learn to read Chinese than to find a reading method that’s fun?
These familiar fiction stories will help you progress your reading level by limiting the number of Chinese characters being used. The readers are accompanied by definitions (conveniently linked in the ebook version) and vivid imagery to help with the reading.
They have a number of books that you can see here, but here is a selection of my favorites. These Chinese graded readers range from US$7-$15 depending on whether you purchase the Kindle book or the physical book.
2. FluentU Video Learning (Recommended)
If you’re a visual learner, FluentU is an amazing Chinese learning tool! It turns trailers, music videos, news, and more, into private language lessons. It’s used for training a number of Mandarin skills, but it’s also very good to help you learn to read Chinese.
You can pick how you personally want to learn on this platform, as videos are divided by topic, difficulty, and format. The videos are accompanied by subtitles, so you can practice your reading skills at the same time as listening to conversations. You can also look up any word.
You’ll have to pay a bit for this tool (at least $15/mo), but you can try it for free and I can almost guarantee that you’ll get so immersed in the great videos that you’ll forget you’re learning Chinese!
3. Chinese Breeze | Another Chinese Graded Reader Series
This is another Chinese language reader, with varied story topics ranging from fiction to non-fiction, technology and more. They have a larger selection of books than Mandarin Companion and in some cases are cheaper, but the stories aren’t familiar and the quality isn’t quite up to the same level.
Learn to Read Chinese with Flashcards
While I highly recommend you take advantage of resources like Mandarin Companion graded readers or the fun videos on FluentU, I also recognize that there are times when you just need to focus on memorizing characters.
Whether you’re a new student of Chinese or you’ve been studying non-stop for years, flash card programs are an essential part of your language learning toolbox. Here is what we recommend to help you learn to read Chinese.
4. Remembr.it | Professional Timed Flashcards (Recommended)
The Remembr.it website & apps offers beautifully-produced, flashcard-based courses to help you learn to read Chinese. They help with your schedule of learning new words and reviewing old ones, and even offer professional audio examples to help further your Chinese skills.
Once you learn a new word, they put it into a review bank to mark that you’ve learned it and need to review it at a later stage in the program.
You can try Remembr.it for free but it will eventually require a monthly subscription. The advantage of something like this over Anki (see below) is that the app and cards are well-designed so you don’t have to rely cards you create yourself or by another amateur.
5. Anki – Flexible Flashcards (Free)
The Anki flashcard program is a great tool because it can be used on-the-go on your phone or tablet. This makes learning to read Chinese that much better, and is a great way to pass time on a train, in the car, or during a lunch break at work.
The flashcards use active recall testing to help with your memorization and reading of Chinese, which will help you recall the words faster and more efficiently than many other programs.
While there are numerous libraries of flashcards that work in conjunction with most of the popular Chinese textbooks in use today, the best way to use Anki is by creating your own flashcards – which I admit is extremely time consuming.
However, since Anki is open source software, so there are no monthly fees. You can use the program free on your computer or pay a small, one-time fee to download the mobile app.
6. Chineasy | Flashcards for Beginners
The Chineasy learning tool uses visual tools to help you learn basic Chinese characters. It also focuses on China and Chinese culture, to give you a well-rounded perspective when learning this new language. They offer various classes and building blocks on their website.
Personally, I downloaded this app for my 4-year old son to learn Chinese. He LOVES it. It works for beginners in the same way – it goes beyond just asking you to memorize characters, it gives you a visual representation of what they mean to help it stick in your memory.
7. Memrise | Mnemonic Memorization (Free)
The Memrise courses use mnemonic memorization techniques, which many people find helpful when learning to read Mandarin Chinese. Their courses are divided into different parts: the higher the part, the more advanced it is. Much of the program utilizes flashcards and you’re able to download a handy phone app to take your learning on the go.
You’ll learn to read Chinese characters quickly with this tool. You’ll also learn different Chinese expressions, characters, and verbs, amongst many more things! Best of all, it’s free to sign up and use.
Dictionaries | Necessary Reading Tools
As boring as dictionaries are, they are absolutely necessary tools when it comes to learning to read Mandarin Chinese. Thankfully, technology has taken things a step further and not only made these dictionaries easy to use, but also added features such as OCR (“Optical Character Recognition”), which can use your phone’s camera to identify a Chinese character.
8. Pleco | Dictionary & OCR (Recommended)
The Pleco dictionary covers over 130,000 Chinese words and 20,000 example sentences – and there are even more add ons you can purchase. For any serious student of Chinese, this is one of the very first apps that you download.
Seriously. Ask anybody you know who’s studying Chinese and they’ll show you Pleco on their phone.
You can look up specific words in the dictionary, use their flashcard system, and cross-reference any Chinese character or word. Pleco is extremely versatile in that you can do a pinyin search, search for a word using the touchpad (writing the character with your finger), or search through characters to find a word.
What makes Pleco one of the most used tools for Chinese learners is something called “OCR”, which stands for “Optical Character Recognition” (note: this is a paid but completely worthwhile add-on). In short, you can use your phone’s camera to look at Chinese characters in real time and have the dictionary show you its meaning and uses (see example photo below). This, more than anything else, has been an unbelievable help for me in my quest to learn to read Chinese.
9. MDBG | Integrated Chinese Dictionary
If you do a lot of reading on your computer, using MDBG might be a good option. It can be accessed online or you can download an offline version for Windows or Mac.
This online dictionary translates English to Chinese with the click of a button. It’s free to use and very helpful if you’re stuck on a word while reading and can’t figure out the definition. It can also be used on mobile devices, which is perfect for when you’re on the go.
10. Zdic | Online Dictionary for Advanced Chinese Students
Zdic is a free Chinese dictionary that’s a great tool to have to learn to read Chinese because of how comprehensive it is. In order to read and understand Chinese at an advanced level, you also need to have a tool that can provide a deeper, Chinese perspective on the meaning.
This dictionary gives very detailed single-character information and detailed definitions.
11. Youdao | Dictionary for Specialized Jargon (Free)
Youdao is a dictionary that looks and acts similar to Google Translate, except that it is specifically designed by a Chinese company for use with the Chinese language. In this way, it is a great tool for academic or specialist jargon that may be harder to find in other dictionaries.
You can use the tool online or download software for your computer and phone for offline use. It’s a great tool to have for translation reading because it provides parallel translations as well as fixed expressions and a dictionary. It can be used on desktop as well as mobile phones.
12. Jukuu | Unique Chinese Search Engine (Free)
If you like using Google, then you’ll love using Jukuu. It works like Google in that you type in Chinese or English words in the search engine, and then it finds sentences that contain those words. This is great for learning how to read Chinese in that it also translates each word for more extensive learning.
13. Baidu Dictionary (Free)
The Baidu Dictionary is a great tool to have if you’re stuck on any idioms or expressions. It’s similar to Wikipedia in that any user can edit the information on the site. This is a bit less formal than dictionaries and great for beginners, intermediate, and advanced learners.
14. Line Dictionary | Helpful Sentences & Expressions
The Line Dictionary is a free dictionary and translator that is a great tool to learn how to read Chinese and is a wonderful component to accompany other tools in this guide.
What I like about using the Line Dictionary is the option to search for examples of a word being used in a sentence as opposed to just the definition of the word alone.
The Line Dictionary can also function offline, which is very convenient if you’re traveling or somewhere where you’re not connected to Wi-Fi.
15. Hanping | Dictionary & OCR
The Hanping app is very similar to the Pleco app, except not quite as good (it also doesn’t offer an iOS version). The app allows you to look up Chinese words either by writing them with your finger or using your camera to point at the word you’re reading.
There’s a free version and a paid version. It teaches you simplified and traditional characters, and provides translation of sentences with one easy tap as well as flashcards.
Other Learn to Read Chinese Tools
In addition to the books, flashcards, and dictionaries mentioned above, there are also a number of learn to read Chinese tools that don’t really fit in a specific category. This includes tools like a human Q&A site or general Chinese learning programs. Check out what I’ve used and recommend below.
16. ChinesePod | Comprehensive Chinese Lessons (Recommended)
The ChinesePod program library offers over 3,500 Chinese lessons. It’s possible to consume a lot of their great content, including a number of great podcasts for free, but the best parts of their lessons require a paid subscription. Mind you, there’s a very good reason why over 800,000 people use ChinesePod!
There are a ton of different lessons to choose from based on your skill level that will focus not just on listening and speaking, but also on learning to read Chinese. They offer a Basic package ($14/month) and Premium package ($29/ month) which cater to different student needs.
***ChinesePod Discount Code!*** Use the code “TCCHINA” to get $50 off an annual premium subscription from ChinesePod! Click the button below to try for free.
17. Chinese Language Stack Exchange | Q&A Help (Free)
This tool is a bit different than many others on this guide. It’s a question and answer site for students and teachers. Anyone can ask a question and anyone can answer.
This is a great tool if you have specific questions about reading Chinese and can’t find an answer anywhere else on the web or in the dictionary.
18. Chinese Boost | Grammar Lessons (Free)
The Chinese Boost website gives extensive advice and information on the best ways to learn Chinese. They offer free materials and articles to help you choose tools that are the best for you to use. They also offer simple ways to help you maximize your learning capabilities so you’re learning how to read Chinese at a quickened pace! In addition to giving tools, they also offer a list of hundreds of grammar difficulties.
Unlike a textbook, it explains the grammar in depth to make it easier for you to understand and comprehend.
19. Master of Mandarin | A Guided Path for Learning
The Master of Mandarin packages offer a curriculum for those of you interested in learning Chinese. They offer articles and various PDFs to get you started with offerings geared toward beginner, intermediate, and advanced students.
This is a great tool to have if you’re interested in learning how to read Chinese but don’t know where to start. It’s not free, though, so be prepared to fork over at least $39.
20. DigMandarin | Chinese Learning Community
The DigMandarin website offers free tools to help you learn Chinese. From Chinese pronunciation guides, Chinese tutors, and commonly used Chinese words, this site offers the best tips and tricks for learning how to read Chinese. This is another great tool to have to accompany other tools in this guide.
21. Move to China
If you’ve made it this far in the list…congratulations! I’m glad to know this has been helpful for you. And since you seem to be so dedicated to learn to read Chinese characters, I have one simple question for you.
What’s stopping you from moving to China?
There’s no better way to learn the language than to immerse yourself in the country and absorb the culture (although using a Chinese tutor comes in close second). And if you’re not quite sure if moving to China is the right choice, check out my China travel handbook that covers everything I wish I had known before I first stepped foot in China.
Concluding Thoughts | Learn to Read Chinese
Every one of these apps is extremely useful to have to help you learn how to read Chinese. You can stick to one or pick multiple ones to use to help progress your language abilities and have you reading Chinese in no time!
And once you’ve decided how you’re going to improve your reading skills, you can jump over to more resources to help you learn how to write Chinese characters. Woo-hoo!
Do you know any more tools to use to learn how to read Chinese that should be added? Share in the comments below!